A Taste for Chestnuts and a Perennial Legacy

A Taste for Chestnuts

In Iowa, Jeremy and I bought a 25-lb bag of chestnuts, and we began eating them daily. You’ve likely never had a chestnut, but let us assure you that they taste great both raw and cooked. At one point, they took on a flavor of maple syrup, sweet corn, or “sugar snap peas with a hint of butterscotch.” I, Harry, run a lot of miles and consume a lot of calories. Let me assure you that eating a few chestnuts is unquestionably satisfying. I would compare it to eating a pre-packaged Clif Bar. Chestnuts are the only nut that is high in carbohydrate, and they can be used to make pancakes, pastas, crepes, breads, and even smoothies. Let me assure you that they are not a hyped-up wild food crop, rendered inaccessible by a need for extensive processing. If our work is successful, chestnuts will be the next hummus: a food that in 1980 was largely consumed by immigrants and fringe vegetarians but is now a staple in households across the nation.

 Sustenance from trees: is there anything more sustainable?

Sustenance from trees: is there anything more sustainable?

A Perennial Legacy

In the 1950’s, Greg Miller’s father planted a Chestnut orchard. A few years later, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute said to a room full of young masters students, “I’ve got the herbaceous perennials. One of you has to take the woodies.” Greg Miller was in that room, and said to himself, “I think he’s talking to me.”

 "I planted these trees when I was a junior in high school, in 1972." Greg and Jeremy walk through the Rt. 9 orchard.

"I planted these trees when I was a junior in high school, in 1972." Greg and Jeremy walk through the Rt. 9 orchard.

The Land Institute invented perennial wheat. This is what Mr. Jackson was referring to with the words “herbaceous perennials.” Perennial wheat does not yield nearly as much as annual wheat, but heads of maize were once as thick as a pencil: let us not fear uncertainty and simply, time. “Woody perennials” are simply trees and shrubs. Today we are interested in those that produce staple food crops, namely chestnuts.

Greg Miller is now 60 years old. He runs The Rt. 9 Chestnut Cooperative in Carrollton, Ohio. They have the capacity to process 200,000 lbs of chestnuts annually, and provide real, perennial sustenance to real people. He is a firm believer in sharing information, and we’d like to share a bit of his insight today. If Millennials do not take on careers in agriculture, income from agriculture will continue to consolidate in the hands of large multinational corporations that seek to sell us nutrient-poor, irresponsibly-produced food.

 Are you familiar with the cork oak dehesa in Spain that feeds the pigs that yield the famous "jamón Ibérico de bellota?" The resemblance of the Rt. 9 Cooperative, to the Dehesa, was astounding. It is said that Ulysses, once disguised in rags on his return to Ithaca, encountered a pig farmer than tended his herd beneath the cork oaks. It is generally wise to mimic systems that have worked for Millennia. 

Are you familiar with the cork oak dehesa in Spain that feeds the pigs that yield the famous "jamón Ibérico de bellota?" The resemblance of the Rt. 9 Cooperative, to the Dehesa, was astounding. It is said that Ulysses, once disguised in rags on his return to Ithaca, encountered a pig farmer than tended his herd beneath the cork oaks. It is generally wise to mimic systems that have worked for Millennia. 

Let us start out by reiterating that the current demand for chestnuts vastly exceeds the supply. Koreans and Chinese from New York City once offered to buy everything Greg has, but as the number of buyers increased, so too has Greg’s bargaining power. The demand for chestnuts comes almost exclusively from immigrants that grew up with a chestnut culture outside the United States. Bosnians are quite fond of Chestnuts, and at Red Fern Farm, in Iowa, we met a family that had driven 6 hours from Minneapolis to pick nuts by hand. Critics might suggest that chestnuts are a novelty, but we strongly disagree: we see an enormous latent demand for the crop. In non-economic terms, this is to say, “you don’t know what you’re missing.”